A Glimpse Into the AI-Powered Classroom of the Future by China's Fastest-Growing EdTech Company

A human-AI hybrid model could take over classrooms in the near future

Kindra Cooper

AI for education

One fast-growing edtech company in China believes the most rampant issues plaguing the education system can be rectified using AI.

That includes limitations like access, cost and quality control. By doing what AI does best - adapting to data input from user behavior - it adjusts to differences in the learning styles and aptitudes of each individual student through an AI-driven adaptive engine and custom-built courseware. 

“The way we are transforming the education industry is we want to turn a passive experience into an active one,” Richard Tong, chief architect at Squirrel AI, told CCW Digital. “We want to turn a teacher-centric model into a student-centric one.” 

Squirrel AI, the first AI-powered adaptive education platform in China, provides after-school tutoring for K-12 students on a one-to-one basis - allegedly at 30 percent of the cost of hiring a personal tutor. In just two years, the company opened over 1,600 schools in China and grew its revenue from $200,000 to $150 million per year. 

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With competition so fierce to get into the top schools, China’s after-school tutoring market is valued at around $100 billion. In most parts of the world, a child’s educational fate is predetermined by zip code. In China, only rich families or those with elite connections successfully enrol their children in top-tier schools. Applicants from rural areas are almost automatically disqualified from admission to prestigious institutions in first- and second-tier cities. 

When Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) debuted just over 10 years ago,they were designed to alleviate the education gap, but all they did was use technology to promulgate more homogenous content taught at the same pace to the same students. Without the accountability of a teacher breathing down their necks or the prospect of flunking, just 15 percent of students complete an MOOC. 

Here’s what an AI-powered classroom looks like 

Owned by educational data mining company Yixue Group, Squirrel AI’s approach to education centers on a “roundtable” classroom concept where each student gets a computer and a headset. They complete tasks and follow a lesson plan while the AI tracks their progress and metes out content commensurate with their performance.

Squirrel AI

Inside a Squirrel AI classroom (Photo credit: Squirrel AI)

High-performing fast learners take on progressively more difficult tasks, while those struggling with the material are shown similar or slightly easier questions, or receive a walk-through of each step. 

It’s similar to the premise of a learner-guided language tutoring app like Duolingo, which starts by assessing your current proficiency and incrementally ramps up the complexity of tasks assigned. 

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Meanwhile, the teacher is relegated (or venerated, depending on your perception) to the role of “head coach.”  The coach views a dashboard that tracks student progress in real-time and shows when a student is struggling, and swoops in to provide human assistance. The premise is providing the teacher with actionable analytics so they can help students as soon as they face difficulties - not after they flunk a final exam. 

Squirrel AI“We take the low-tech, repetitive parts of the work away from the teacher and help them become more impactful in doing human things, like arranging projects, motivating and also helping the AI to a certain extent,” explained Tong, a technologist who has spent the last few years developing education solutions.  

Tong says the teacher’s role is threefold: 1) Delivering content, usually through lectures; 2) Assessing students by administering tests; 3) Supporting students and building their motivation and emotional intelligence. The first part is easy - even MOOCs do this successfully simply by replacing an in-person lecture with a pre-recorded video. 

“The second part, which is providing feedback at the right time and giving students specific recommendations and so forth - that part Coursera doesn’t do,” says Tong. “That’s what we do.” 

Thanks to AI, anyone can be a teacher

By transmuting the teacher’s role to one of mentor in lieu of lecturer, Tong says an AI-powered classroom lowers barriers to teacher licensing. A parent, for instance, could become a coach with some basic training in child development and how to use the AI without being certified in, say, Physics or Math.   

Despite its obvious perks, a technology so disruptive in an education industry notorious for inertia has courted controversy. Public school teachers with decades of experience are the most resistant, says Tong, while newly credentialed graduates are more receptive to taking on an AI-human hybrid teaching role. Besides, the AI technology is inherently flawed and can’t function autonomously in an education setting, said Tong, who takes a pragmatic view on AI’s potential for disruption. 

Squirrel AI

A "spacetube" inside the Squirrel AI office in Shanghai (Photo credit: Squirrel AI)

“Sometimes the AI is still a little bit dumb,” he says. “It’s based on a dataset, but the data doesn’t tell the whole story.”

The system can’t detect cheating or plagiarism, for instance. During one visit to a Squirrel AI classroom, Tong watched a little girl googling exam questions and copy-pasting information into the answer field. Unfortunately, the AI would wrongly assume she’d grasped the material and dole out increasingly difficult questions and lesson plans. 

The Shanghai-based startup, founded in 2014, is working with Carnegie Mellon University to develop a backend user interface where teachers can design and upload their own curricula and content. They’re also working on making it easier for humans to train the machine learning algorithms without having to write code. The ultimate goal is to empower the AI to “self-evolve” and adjust itself when a human provides feedback. 

In 2017, Squirrel AI hosted the first AI vs. Human competition in the Asia Pacific, hosting three more year in the past year. “The certified and published results showed that Squirrel AI Learning teaching delivered 7 – 9% higher learning gains over human teachers using traditional teaching methods,” Katie Elizabeth, founder and CEO of Stella Digital, writes in Forbes

“One surprise I had was [the kids] found our system more engaging than a human teacher,” said Tong. “The kids filled in a survey and they said: this thing seems to know me better. That’s the whole purpose, that’s why we built it, and they immediately get it.”